Elizabeth Fry artefact found in trunk

She was a prison reformer famed for her passionate belief that even the most hardened criminals had some good within them. But a precious and historically important artefact uncovered in the Norfolk home of the family of Elizabeth Fry could shed new light on the philanthropist and her feelings towards some of the men and women she met in the Victorian prisons she helped change.

She was a prison reformer famed for her passionate belief that even the most hardened criminals had some good within them.

But a precious and historically important artefact uncovered in the Norfolk home of the family of Elizabeth Fry could shed new light on the philanthropist and her feelings towards some of the men and women she met in the Victorian prisons she helped change.

Remarkably, this fragile, yellowed notebook in which she scrawled her thoughts on prisoners and the conditions in which they lived more than 170 years ago was recently uncovered in a forgotten, dusty trunk as her descendents rummaged in their attic at Northrepps Hall, near Cromer.

The book was packed away by the family more than 60 years ago along with a tiny bible, almanac and bonnet, and since its rediscovery has been loaned to the Castle Museum in Norwich for an Elizabeth Fry display.


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Staff said the finds were 'absolutely thrilling' - not least because the notebook is in the Quaker woman's own hand and describes at least two prisoners in the notorious Newgate prison as 'most horrid' and 'without one redeeming trait'.

Simon Gurney, a descendant of Elizabeth Fry's brother, said the items were brought to light while he and his wife, Deborah, were renovating nearby Northrepps Cottage to convert it into a hotel.

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Northrepps Hall was the last home of John Henry Gurney, who had been given a tiny bible containing a handwritten dedication 'from his most affect. aunt Eliz Fry', which also forms part of the new display.

'We knew there were boxes of items connected with Elizabeth Fry and we wanted to research her for one of the new hotel rooms which will be named after her,' said Simon, who is John Henry's great-great grandson.

'It was literally a dusty old trunk full of moth balls up in the attic, but whoever had packed it last, probably around the end of the last war, had taken a lot of care so it was all in very good condition.

'Before we looked I knew there were various pieces there, including the bonnet, but lots of the other items we didn't know about.'

The find was made by Deborah, who added: 'The beautiful booklet detailing Elizabeth Fry's visits to the prisons is the most important.

'It is a day-by-day account of going to the prisons and we had no idea it existed. It is in her handwriting of course and the subject matter is one of the things she is most famous for.'

Museum interpreter Marilyn Taylor, who has carried out research into Elizabeth Fry, described reading the woman's handwritten notes as 'absolutely thrilling'.

The book has a red cover scrawled with her initials EJF and 'Prison Notes'.

'To see that book which she actually took with her on her prison visits, and her actual handwriting, was certainly a moment I will never forget. It's quite incredible. I have done a lot of research but to see an object that belonged to her is very, very special.

'She would have taken it on her visit to Ireland and the lunatic asylums to report on the conditions, but the book is open on the page of her visit to Newgate prison in London in 1827.

'It's quite a cheap little book, really, but it is very important. It is very difficult to read her tiny writing but I've been able to make out right at the bottom where she writes that she has met two male prisoners and she describes them as 'most horrid, without one redeeming trait'.

'It's quite interesting that she said that because all the books about Elizabeth Fry say she believed everyone had redeeming qualities and had an inner light - but she obviously felt these two men were beyond hope.'

The book details the number of females and males imprisoned and how they were employed. At the time, men and women could mix easily but Elizabeth Fry was keen to separate the genders and create categories of prisoner.

It sits alongside the tiny bible, which is typical of the ones that Elizabeth would have given to female prisoners transported to Australia. The bonnet found by the Gurneys is still being studied by experts but another bonnet worn by her is in the display within the Crome gallery, along with iron manacles, an Elizabeth Fry doll, a portrait and prison coins.

Ms Taylor added: 'We have put the display in here because this part of the gallery is meant to be an English Country House; this is how she would have lived with these sorts of paintings around her. And yet she walked into the harshest places and cared about the prisoners.'

Appropriately, a 1778 painting by Francis Wheatley which hangs just feet away depicts a family group which includes Elizabeth Fry's mother, Catherine Bell, before she married into the illustrious Gurney family.

One of Ms Taylor's favourite pieces is an actual coin which was engraved with a message from a female convict from Norfolk who was being transported to Australia for life.

It bears the name of Mary Ann Adams 'transported for life in 1834', and would have been given as a memento to her loved ones.

'Elizabeth Fry visited every convict ship within a 20-year period, so it is highly likely that she would have met Mary Ann Adams prior to her departure.

'In her time she was one of the most famous women alive and although she is on our �5 note I think there are many people who still don't know about her, she is not as well-known as Florence Nightingale.

'But I think most people in Norwich and Norfolk admire her and will also be thrilled to see these items on display.'

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